To an Athlete Dying Young by A. E. Housman

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Identify metaphors in "To an Athlete Dying Young."

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S.L. Watson eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In A.E. Housman's poem "To an Athlete Dying Young," the poet uses the metaphor of the runner, an athlete, to represent all those who have died young while still in their prime and glory. Furthermore, the image of the athlete as he wins the race and is carried home "shoulder-high" as he is cheered by the townspeople is juxtaposed to the image of the same young athlete being carried home "shoulder-high" in his coffin. The metaphor of the "stiller town" represents the deathly quiet of the grave where the athlete will rest.

In stanza five, the "lads that wore their honours out" become a metaphor for those who do not die young, while still in their glory days, and go on to live a life perhaps filled with regret for the past. Interestingly enough, this poem was recited by Isak Dinesen Blixen, played by Meryl Streep in the movie Out of Africa, when Denys Finch Hatton, played by Robert Redford, was killed while still in the prime of his life. Again, this emphasizes the metaphor of the athlete dying while he is still young, fit, and able, comparing this to anyone who is killed while still in the bloom of life rather than withering away through old age and sickness. The poet emphasizes that it is better to die when one has the "early-laureled head"—laurel being a symbol of victory—rather than waste away when glory has faded.

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lprono eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The entire poem does not refer to a specific athlete or a particular sports event but to a universal condition. The condition of the athlete becomes, therefore, metaphoric of the entire human existence and its inevitable progression towards death. Significantly, in line 5, humanity is defined as formed by different "runners". This second stanza is highly metaphorical, describing the experience of death with terms such as "home" (grave) and "stiller town" (cemetery) that usually refer to our everyday lives.

In addition to the progression towards death, the characterization of humans as runners could also refer to the equally inevitable competition among humans for fame. Such competition, as the following stanzas make clear, may seem futile with hindsight as death is not simply the culmination of physical decay but also of oblivion ("Runners whom renown outran/And the name died before the man"). The paradox of the poem is that oblivion and disappointments can be avoided through death, so that the dead person does not realize the transitory nature of fame.

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